So here I am in Tampa, signing a lease at twenty-eight for my first apartment. I haven’t unpacked my suitcase fully since I was twenty-two. For the first time in six years, I will wake up in the same city for four months… in a row. I didn’t bring my passport with me. Needless to say, things are changing.
Three months ago, I would have told you that I was on my way to making professional tennis my career. I had dedicated that part of my life completely to a craft, in an effort to become one of the best in the world. I was traveling thirty to forty weeks per year, often in Europe and sometimes in Asia. My days were built around practice: Skill-based work on the court, like getting sideways on my volley or getting out of the corners more efficiently; physical training like moving weight quickly and bike sprints; mental stuff like breathing exercises, imagery, and mindfulness training.
For some practical reasons, and after an assessment of the last eighteen months, I decided it was time to move on. I had been consistently making progress, but not at a rate that was going to get me to my goals on a realistic timeline. So, here I am, right in the middle of that dreaded transition. I’m unsure of where I will be in six or twelve months. For an athlete, it is a transition he or she has to face at some point - moving from “I am an athlete” to “I am a…” Right. I don’t know. When athletes’ sports makes up a significant portion of who they think they are, they fall into a major trap. When your sense of self is largely made up of “tennis player,” your self-esteem is yanked mercilessly by a win or loss or how you feel you played that day. I’ve struggled with this in the past. A psychologist might unpack the involvement of the ego (to be recognized) and our evolutionary need for social acceptance (loss equals failure equals threatened place in the tribe). It is essential to change the phrasing from I am to I do. You might say I play (do) tennis versus I am a tennis player. Answering the I am question with an important value - I am kind or I am honest - would be a more accurate way to describe yourself and your character. Choosing values accurately takes reflection and self-awareness. I am human is also pretty good or something along the lines of I am a constructed amalgam of my selected past experiences, which means that you are choosing who “you” are at any moment. Some traditions say there is no real “self” anyway. But all of this might be a different post.
Deciding to stop tennis took a hard dose of realism and lots of internal work. So does figuring out what to do next. I spent four days in December on a silent mindfulness retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA. My days were spent alternating sitting and walking meditations, forty-five minutes each. Mindfulness (vipassana), or insight meditation, is about turning inward to “see inside” and start to notice what is going on. I am trying to discern the noise (expectations, fears, media influences, social norms) from the truth (insight/wisdom). Sitting and watching your own mind and body for a while is a damn good way to start to get to some truth.
For now, I am in Tampa, helping coach the USF men’s tennis team. I’m getting a chance to implement the things I’ve learned over the last eight years, from tennis to physical preparation to mental skills. I’m also doing some nutrition work on the side with people who want to be healthier by making better food choices. I’m pretty pumped about both of those things. I’m in the right place for the moment, and I attribute this to the moments of clarity I’ve cultivated through taking time to stop and look inside.Thinking about the future is scary. I’m weighing the pros and cons of coaching (tennis/movement/mentality) and going into business like my dad. I think often about the opportunities my parents created for my sisters and me. I’m thinking about the lifestyle I want to build for my family in the future. How important is money? How about freedom and autonomy? How are all of these things related? What role do they have in creating the lifestyle I want? I’m not at any real truth yet. That will probably take a while, but I am confident that I make better decisions when I’m clear-minded and open. That makes the most sense to me right now.